Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Secret History of a Novel (A Guest Post by Lawrence M. Schoen)

Today's post comes from Lawrence M. Schoen, whose novel Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard drops today from Tor Books. Go grab it!

Lawrence holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of prophecy, intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

To read more from him, you can visit his website, friend him on facebook, and follow him on twitter. Thanks for stopping by, Lawrence!

Secret History of a Novel

by Lawrence M. Schoen

Most of you will make the not all that unwarranted assumption that I wrote Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard fairly recently. That I turned in a manuscript and waited for editorial notes and crafted my revisions and then waited for it to wend its way through the publishing calendar. Or, at worst, that I’d had the book finished for some few years and had been actively trying to sell it during that time until finally time and place and editor all lined up. In fact, in some ways, bits of both of these are true, and I’ll tell you which bits, but more importantly the really odd piece is that in a major way they’re all wrong. This book is old. Possibly older than you, dear reader.

It’s not simply that I started writing Barsk roughly twenty-five years ago. A lot of us start books, set them aside for a while, come back to them. But no. I began writing this book in 1988 during my second year as a college professor (I was 28 at the time, the ink still wet on my doctorate). The first two chapters were published in a fan magazine in 1990, and I went on to write the entire novel, all fifty chapters of it! I was very proud of the book, as it was the first novel I had written from beginning to end, and quite naturally I started trying to publish it. I dropped it through the transom of as many publishers as I knew would let met. I acquired first one and then another agent who also showed it around. No one so much as nibbled.

And a good thing too. Because as I kept writing, producing other stories and novels, learning my craft and improving my skills, one thing became very clear: I’d written a horrible book!

It wasn’t that the story was bad, just that I didn’t have the tools or the ability to tell it well. Quite simply, I wasn’t good enough yet. Eventually this fact bypassed my ego and percolated through to my awareness and I put the damn manuscript in a drawer. I went back to writing, to learning, to improving. I joined a regular writing group. I attended James Gunn’s two week workshop at the University of Kansas. I climbed the mountain and took part in Walter Jon Williams’s master class in Taos, New Mexico. And I practiced, practiced, practiced.

You know the adage that goes ‘when the student is ready, the master will appear’? Apparently it applies to authors and editors too. In 2011, at the Worldcon in Reno, Nevada, an editor friend took me to dinner, explaining that he’d recently taken a job at Tor and would soon be in a position to acquire new works. “Pitch me,” he said, and so I told him about four different books that I had in various stages of development. One of them was Barsk, which arguably was in a stage of development, if you want to call ‘being trunked’ a stage. In any case, he picked that story and that caused me to pull the book out of its trunk and look at it with fresh eyes after more than a decade, so I could write and sell him a proposal.

Oh, the pain. It was soooooo bad. But, the story still worked. If anything, I saw subtleties in the broad strokes that I must have intended at some unconscious level because they were clearly there though I didn’t remember them and had never developed them in that original book.

I ripped that book apart. I tore all the words out and broke the storyline to bits. I brought in a team of people to bounce ideas off of using the tools I’d since acquired. Characters changed names, some vanished entirely, others merged. Plots took on new dimension, subplots abounded, voices acquired nuance and perspective and scope.

The version of Barsk that comes out today is at one and the same time the novel I wrote twenty-five years ago and of course it’s nothing like that book at all. It’s the book that I wish I could have written back then. Best of all though, it’s the book that I’m glad I waited till now to write.


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